Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.
USA, 1941. Warner Bros.. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the book by Hartzell Spence. Cinematography by Charles Rosher. Produced by Irving Rapper. Music by Max Steiner. Production Design by Carl Jules Weyl. Costume Design by Milo Anderson. Film Editing by Warren Low. Academy Awards 1941.
In early twentieth-century Stratford, Ontario, medical student Fredric March hears the call to serve the Lord and gives up his ambitions as a doctor. His soon-to-be in-laws are appalled by the news that he wants to be a poor minister, but fiancée Martha Scott quotes the book of Ruth, letting him know that whither he goest she shall go. Where he ends up goest-ing is Iowa, where they set up as the religious leaders of a small community and begin a family before he is moved to Denver and a bigger congregation. There, he attempts a project to build a new church but must deal with warring personalities among the parish’s prominent members, some of whom resort to quite appalling back-stabbing methods to get their own way. Throughout the experiences that are related in this low-key, picaresque tale, March has his faith tested time and again but holds on to his belief in God and love of his family at even the most trying at times. No surprise that a book written by the son of the real-life William Spence veers easily into hagiography (the real life Hartzell Spence consulted on the film adaptation), but having as unsympathetic an actor as March playing a religious hardliner who always falls back on principal and never indulges in emotional reasoning makes for a film that, while wholly sincere, comes off cold. All the affection is stacked in Scott’s corner, who she gives a performance rivaling Greer Garson in Goodbye Mr. Chips for loveliness, but the script is hardly interested in her domestic concerns and she’s relegated to little more than adding her occasional input to March’s pronouncements. The film only gets involved with a vague concept of Christian religion, all Golden Rules and prayers in crisis, likely to avoid offending any specific denomination of ticket-buyers; in retrospect, the religious audience members who aren’t up for a challenge would be much better served in films that included some kind of fantasy or comedy element (by which I mean skip this one and rent The Bishop’s Wife), while gentle nostalgia over an author’s home life would sparkle more in Life With Father and Papa’s Delicate Condition.